In our new Album Anniversary series, Country Universe talks to singer-songwriter Kim Richey on the 25th anniversary of her self-titled debut album. Twenty-five years later, it remains as fresh a listen as it did upon release, with a unique sound and uniformly strong collection of songs that have since been recorded by many other artists.
The story of Kim Richey begins seven years before its release. Like many of the singers and songwriters who came to town in the eighties and nineties, the expanding sound of country music encouraged Richey to move to Nashville, where she quickly landed a publishing deal.
Kim Richey: I moved to Nashville in ’88. When I was first here for a while, I was waiting tables and bartending and stuff like that. And then I ended up getting a publishing deal with Bluewater Music, which was really great. It was a small kind of boutique publisher and I really couldn’t have landed in a better place. They were so supportive of all their writers.
Kim Richey had her first songwriting hit with “Nobody Wins,” a #2 hit recorded by the song’s co-writer, Radney Foster. While Trisha Yearwood (“Those Words We Said”), Ronna Reeves (“Never Let Him See Me Cry”), George Ducas (“In No Time at All”), and a pre-Natalie Maines Dixie Chicks (“Desire”) recorded her songs, her ultimate goal was to record an album herself, and she knew just who she wanted to produce it.
Richey: I met with Richard Bennett because I loved the work that he’d done with Steve Earle. I was a massive Steve Earle fan. Guitar Town is one of the records that talked me into moving to Nashville.
So I hooked up with Richard, and we got along really well together. He and I started going around to record labels to see if they’d be interested in us making a record together.
At the time I was making all my demos, all these really amazing musicians had moved to town and were doing demo sessions, like Dan Dugmore. So I had Dan playing on a lot of my early demos. The demos back then sounded like records. Some people even used their demo tracks on the finished record.
Label people and producers would come to Bluewater and they would get a cassette of my songs because they really liked them, and they wanted to listen to them, but nobody would cut any of them. I guess it wasn’t what was going on back then, what we were doing.
It was a new label head who saw the potential in what Kim and Richard were doing, and unlike many labels at the time, they put their complete trust in the artist and producer to make the album that they envisioned.
Richey: I was lucky enough to get with Luke Lewis and the people from Mercury, and they said yes to Richard and I making a record. Billy Ray Cyrus was over there and Shania Twain, too, so there was plenty of money to take chances on people.
And they just left us completely alone to do whatever we wanted to do. It was funny. We were in the studio one time and Richard was asking about the label, because they hadn’t come by and we’ve been working for a while. He said, “Do they even know you’re in here?” And I said, “Yeah, they know we’re in here!” So I called over to Mercury and I said, “You know we’re over here making a record. Do you have any interest in what we’re doing?” And they were so cool. They said, “Yeah, we were just waiting for you to invite us over!”
The album broke from several conventions of country records at the time. It included thirteen tracks, three more than the industry standard. Many of the songs also featured extended instrumental outros, a break from the radio-friendly norm of fading songs out shortly after the artist has finished singing the lyrics.
Richey: Those outros, we left because I just loved them so much. The band that played on that record were such great musicians. I think “That’s Exactly What I Mean” was a first taker. These guys were so good and they just played so well together. For the most part, I didn’t know any of the core musicians until I went into the studio with Richard, but everybody was just so cool and friendly.
I think part of being a great producer is creating a vibe and getting the right people together. Our favorite song got to be “Can’t Find the Words” because it was just so trippy, and we just thought, “Wow, this is an odd song to have on a country record.” But we really, really liked it. Richard was brewing his own beer, and at the end of the day, when we’d finished tracking and everything, we would sit around and drink some of Richard’s beer and listen to “Can’t Find the Words.”
Richey: The songs that we recorded were the ones that we had picked, the songs that we wanted to do, and Mercury was okay with that. The other songs were just songs I let go to other people. Because I had a lot of songs. That’s all I did was write and write and write, so we had a good stack to choose from.
It was funny with country radio because they just weren’t buying it for my records, but when somebody else that was more established and more traditional would cut one of the songs, then they could get on the radio.
While radio might not have embraced Kim Richey ,the album found a fan in television producer Joss Whedon, who featured “Let the Sun Fall Down” in an early episode of his classic teen vampire drama.
Richey: That was in Buffy. Joss Whedon is a really great writer. That musical episode is genius, I think.
Whedon would later include “A Place Called Home” from her fourth album, Rise, on an episode of Angel.
In the years following its release, many of her debut album’s songs would be recorded by major artists. Three of the covers were radio hits of varying success: Mindy McCready went top twenty with “You’ll Never Know.” Lorrie Morgan grazed the charts with “Here I Go Again,” and Suzy Bogguss did the same with “From Where I Stand.”
But one of the most surprising covers came from staunch traditionalist Patty Loveless, who included “That’s Exactly What I Mean” on her 1997 album, Long Stretch of Lonesome.
Richey: That was such a great version of it. I loved that. That’s one of my favorite covers, because she actually really took the song and made it her own, and it was in a very cool way. I love her, too. She’s one of the all time best singers.
I think that we don’t just listen to, or are influenced by, one kind of music. I also think my versions of the songs, I didn’t have to answer to anybody. I wasn’t thinking about radio, or is this country enough. We were just doing whatever we thought was the best for the song, and the music that we liked. I think that when people heard those songs, they picked up on it.
It’s a trend that would continue with her second album, Bitter Sweet, which featured a change in producer.
Richey: I hope I get to make another record with Richard. I was supposed to make the second record with him, but then he left to work with Mark Knopfler.
Angelo produced that. That’s the only fight I had with the label because they were not having it, and I really had to push to get to make that happen.
Like Kim Richey before it, Bitter Sweet was mined for material by other artists. Brooks & Dunn had a sizable hit with “Every River,” while two of Richey’s Mercury labelmates, Kathy Mattea and Terri Clark, recorded their own versions of “I’m Alright.”
Richey: That’s a good one for right now, “I’m Alright.” I get the feeling that the label was convinced that somebody could have a hit with that song. It wasn’t gonna be me, but somebody that got played on radio could make that happen.
Richey expanded into adult pop territory with her third album, Glimmer, which received warm critical notices in 1999. A tour to support that album’s 20th anniversary, which was also commemorated with fresh recordings of the material, was recently put on hold due to the coronavirus crisis.
Richey: The whole thing got canceled. I’m trying to figure out now, do I go out two years from now and do the 23rd anniversary Glimmer tour?”
Her next album, Rise, would be her final collection for Mercury Records, and it’s a project that remains close to her heart.
Richey: That might be my favorite. I had a blast making that record because there were no rules. Some of those songs we wrote as a band, which is something I had never done before.
Richey would collaborate with Mary Chapin Carpenter during this time period, co-writing tracks that appeared on Carpenter’s Time*Sex*Love* (“Swept Away”) and Terri Clark’s Fearless (“To Tell You Everything.”)
The two also co-wrote the Trisha Yearwood single, “Where Are You Now,” and sang harmonies on the track, which appears on Yearwood’s Real Live Woman. Yearwood invited Richey and Carpenter to perform the song with her at the 2000 CMA Awards.
Richey: Chapin and I wrote that song when we were out touring together, and we all three sang it together on the music awards. It was a blast. I remember that night. We had such a great time singing it. I just was out on the road with Trisha last year, and we sang that together during her set, and it was a blast.
Richey: I just keep hearing everywhere that they’re not playing any women on country radio. It’s a shame because when you think back to nineties country, the women were going strong. Things were just opening up a lot more then.
I don’t know about the legacy of the album, as far as what’s going on in country music today. I don’t listen to modern country music that much at all, actually, unless I just happen to hear it out somewhere. I’m not moved by it at all.
Richey has remained a fixture on the Americana scene in the years since, recording background vocals on projects from Jason Isbell and Gretchen Peters, and continuing to release compelling albums on independent labels.
She collaborated with legendary producer Giles Martin on her 2007 album, Chinese Boxes, and began a fruitful collaboration with songwriter Mando Seanz on 2010’s Wreck Your Wheels. Country Universe included her 2018 release Edgeland on our year-end list.
If this feature encourages you to discover her debut album of the first time, be sure to check out everything that came afterward.